WHO To Convene MERS Virus Panel

An expert committee will decide whether to escalate efforts to combat the novel coronavirus that is spreading throughout the Middle East.

By | July 7, 2013

Micrograph of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus particles (yellow)FLICKR, NIAIDThe World Health Organization (WHO) will convene an emergency committee on Tuesday (July 9) to determine whether a new coronavirus that is responsible for 42 deaths, mostly in Saudi Arabia, constitutes a “public health emergency of international concern,” according to Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general for Health and Environment, who announced the plan at a press conference on Friday (July 5) in Geneva. Names of committee members will be released later today.

Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is in the same family of flu-like coronaviruses as the deadly SARS virus that killed 775 people in China in 2003. Since the MERS virus first appeared in September 2012 in Saudi Arabia, the WHO has confirmed 79 cases in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), France, Germany, Italy, Tunisia, and Britain. MERS has not been seen in the United States. 

According to a report published online Friday (July 5) in The Lancet by a team of French epidemiologists, MERS is less transmissible than measles, smallpox, or strong strains of the flu. The researchers conclude that the low level of infectiousness of MERS means it does not have the potential to create a pandemic.  

So far the WHO is not recommending travel restrictions to Saudi Arabia, the center of the outbreak. “We are not in the midst of any acute event right now,” said Fukuda at the news conference. “But it is a good time to . . . do whatever we can do to be as ready as possible.”

Mike Osterholm, director at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, supported the WHO’s actions. “It is a very important step in realizing this poses a potential global threat,” he told ScienceInsider.

The WHO has observed a steady number of cases this spring: 19 in April, 21 in May, and 22 in June. However, it is not clear how the cases are connected. “There is either an animal reservoir that is widespread and we are not aware of it, or there is substantial unrecognized human-to-human transmission of this virus,” Osterholm told ScienceInsider. “Either way, this is a problem.”

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